Texas House Speaker Joe Straus—who led the fight to derail the bathroom bill—announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election to his San Antonio district, therefore eliminating another possible term as speaker. But he didn’t rule out a Republican primary challenge to Governor Greg Abbott.
“I’m not one to close doors. I have to tell you as I’ve traveled the state, speaking out on issues that I think are important to our economy, important to most people, not just Republicans but most Texans, who want to see our economy and opportunities grow and do things that attract jobs and not chase them away,” Straus said at a news conference announcing his decision. “I’ve had people on a daily basis suggest I run for another office.”
Straus repeatedly said during the news conference that he has no plans to be on an election ballot in 2018, but skirted journalists’ questions about a run for governor.
“I look forward to having the time to talk to the people who have been very supportive of me around the state, which I haven’t done yet, today, to see what they think I ought to do and what they are willing to do with me,” Straus said. “But whether I run for public office again or whether I can be a constructive voice and somebody with influence earned over the years, I can make an impact wherever it is.”
Straus oversaw a House that passed one of Abbott’s signature issues: Senate Bill 4, the sanctuary cities bill that allows police to ask people to prove their citizenship and creates a mechanism to remove any state law enforcement official who does not cooperate with federal immigration authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
But Straus and the governor have clashed over the bathroom bill, which aimed to keep transgender people out of government and school bathrooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificate. Texas businesses opposed the bathroom bill as discriminatory legislation that would make it difficult to recruit and retain employees in the state. Some believe the issue will keep Amazon from locating its second headquarters and 50,000 employees in Texas.
Still, Abbott called a special session on the issue, which Straus likened to “horse manure.” Abbott declared he was going to keep a list of legislators who opposed him, and a new political committee recently formed with the intention of electing House members who would vote against Straus receiving a sixth term as speaker.
Abbott was happy that most of his agenda passed in the special legislative session, but he blamed Straus for the failure of the bathroom bill. “We’ve got to either make sure we have a current Speaker who support those principles, or we’ve got to make sure we have the votes in the House to get those principles passed,” Abbott said.
Straus had announced in May that he would seek re-election both to his House seat and as speaker. He believed he had the support to win both elections, but expressed frustration with social and religious conservative groups who have opposed him every election cycle. “This whole process, after doing this for five times, and certain groups that you are aware of are doing the same thing again for the sixth time, as some point it gets so repetitive that what I needed to do is go home and take stock of how things are back home in the district, and they are very strong, stronger than ever, especially after the summer we’ve had,” Straus said at his news conference.
Straus said he feels certain that conservative Republicans can win House races even when faced with fringe opponents. “Rational Republicans will always survive their primary because they always have,” he said. “It’s a myth that you have to be crazy to win a Republican primary for the Texas House. People know House members. We come from local communities where people know us. Our constituents are our neighbors.”
That theme came up repeatedly as Straus continually declined to rule out a gubernatorial run:
“There is a hunger for a Republican voice out there that stresses issues that maybe haven’t gotten enough attention around the Capitol in the last few years.”
“I think of myself as the main voice for constructive issues that people really want to see us make progress on in Texas, from pre-kindergarten through 12 in public education, in higher education, we’ve done a lot of good things on water policy, funding the water plan for the first time after decades of neglect, transportation, we’ve done some good things.
“Those types of issues, bread-and-butter issues that are important to people, are what I want to keep talking about. Some of the other ideas that I didn’t think were the best, if I played a role in keeping them from happening, some people appreciate that.”
In a formal statement, Abbott gave a rather non-committal farewell to Straus. “Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” Abbott said. “I thank Speaker Straus for his service and for his commitment to the State of Texas. Cecilia and I wish Joe and Julie all the best.”
Social conservative groups, meanwhile, expressed joy at the news Straus was leaving office. “This is major victory for grassroots activists who have mobilized local Republican parties across the state to call for Straus to be removed,” wrote Tony McDonald of Empower Texans, the leading tea party group that has coordinated opposition to Straus. “But now is not the time to celebrate. It’s time to escalate.”
Straus’ surprise announcement, first made on his Facebook page, set off a race for speaker among House members. Budget committee chairman John Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond, almost immediately announced as a candidate. Republican Representative Phil King, from Weatherford, had announced last month as a challenger to Straus.
Within minutes of Straus making his retirement announcement, State Affair Chairman Byron Cook of Corsicana said he would not seek re-election. Cook has been one of the foremost House conservatives to oppose the bathroom bill.
House members elect the speaker from one of their own. The House Republican caucus has been pushing to have the next speaker elected by the caucus, but currently there are no rules to enforce party discipline. With more than a third of the House membership, Democrats cannot unilaterally elect a speaker, but can have a major influence on who wins the contest. Straus was repeatedly elected with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.